The counting was still underway in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh at 5.40 pm on Monday, but by now it is clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party will be forming the government in both states, even if their exact tally is still uncertain. That means the sixth consecutive term for the saffron party in Gujarat. In Himachal, the BJP is set to take over after five years of Congress rule. This means that the Hindutva party is now in power either directly or in a coalition in 19 of India’s 29 states.
That is a reflection of the remarkable rise of the BJP, both over the last three decades as it evolved into a truly national party and then over the last three years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. That duo has taken the BJP to record-breaking heights, achieving the first brute majority in Parliament in three decades and gobbling up almost every state that went to the polls, at least in North India. Even their most troubling defeat, in Bihar in 2015 when a large anti-BJP coalition took them on, has been nullified after the Shah and Modi convinced the Janata Dal (United)’s Nitish Kumar to switch coalition partners.
North India is now a sea of saffron, from Jammu & Kashmir, where the BJP is in a coalition with the People’s Democratic Party all the way to Jharkhand. The only outlier is Punjab, which the BJP lost earlier this year due primarily to voters’ unhappiness with its local ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal. South of the Hindi belt, the BJP is also in power in Maharashtra, Goa and Andhra Pradesh along with local allies. In the North East, the saffron party rules over four of the seven states.
Two-thirds of India
That means that, according to population figures from the 2011 census, 67% of Indians now live in a state controlled by the BJP. That is two-thirds of the country, and a much larger figure than the 45% of India’s population under Congress rule when it controlled 18 states back in 1993.
That figure could be set to rise even further. The next big state to go to the polls is Karnataka, where elections are due in May 2018. Karnataka was seen as the BJP’s gateway to the South, a part of the country where its Hindi belt identity did not fit well into local political structures. The BJP won Karnataka in 2008 and has since aggressively sought to amp up the religious polarisation both within the state and in neighbouring Kerala, where it hopes to expand its presence soon. Although the party lost Karnataka in 2012, it is hoping to return to power in 2018 – a result that would mean it is in charge of a record 20 states and 72% of the Indian population.
Much of the analysis on Monday will focus on the specifics of the BJP’s Gujarat victory, with what looks like the tightest margins in years and, especially if the final number is under 100, a sign of vulnerability in the run-up to general elections due in 2019. While that picture may be accurate, the big picture view clearly shows a rampant BJP that possesses a remarkably successful vote-winning formula built around the personality of Modi. The question to ask, especially with more incumbent BJP states going to the polls after Karnataka and 2019 around the corner, is whether this is the party’s peak or will it actually manage to grow even more.
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article erroneously mentioned that the BJP had won Karnataka in 2007, when the state elections were actually in 2008.